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Ulrikka S. Gernes, Frayed Opus for Strings & Wind Instruments
London, ON: Brick Books, 2015

Dawn and dusk, autumn and winter thread through the Danish poetry of Ulrikka Gernes, whose Nordic melancholy transfers fittingly to Canadian sensibilities. Surreal dreamscapes suffuse this collection, which has been seamlessly translated into English by Patrick Friesen and Per Brask.

The first poem introduces themes that carry through the entire volume:

A frayed opus for strings
and wind instruments
and a lit bicycle shed
in the backyard; all that desire
constrained in shuddering
apartment blocks from where
my mind wanders
on daylong steep mountain paths
only to curl up
against your sleeping back
on a bespoken globe.

In Gernes’s universe, experience deforms: music twists and turns to parallel the frayed relationship between poet and lover. Initial conjunctions join random objects so that music interplays with the lit shed in the backyard. In turn, the backyard sheds light on her immediate surroundings and universal abstractions, as the semicolon acts as the sole divider and connector of the poem’s two halves. Constrained desire contrasts with a wandering mind that escapes from the shuddering apartment, only to end up against her lover’s back. Like the frayed opus, the “bespoken globe” is a double helix that unravels on many levels.

The semicolon structures other poems:
On the table in the room in the dark
house lies the book you didn’t know
you were looking for, opened to the page
with the poem about solace you didn’t know
you needed; at first the letters,
then the words, little by little
the lines disappear as you read them
in the light of the faint dawn that trickles in
between the venetians’ dusty
slats and unites you with someone
you didn’t know you are.

Meaning and identity gradually unfold with each enjambment. Like the development of negatives in photography, poet and reader don’t know the meaning and relationship of these accrued details until the final line fixes them. An epiphany occurs through the venetian blinds’ trickle of light. Subject and object unite, and lines disappear, amid the refrain of “you didn’t know.”

A dark mood opens another poem: “Night-black silver, January’s luminous / morning-darkness leaves behind its blacking,” only to end with an unravelling of the double helix’s hyphenation: “late dawn sneaks in, / polishes the dark spots clean.” From an “oblique, bending angle,” the poet observes bodies “yielding, formed by each other’s wind / and ocean.”

The final poem is about “an acute root canal closer to the edge.” Her pain is framed by November’s rain, casting a gentle melancholy, and a series of ands aligning disparate elements, like the string of pearls around her neck. The poem concludes, “let this shred / of an opus lie on the table until tomorrow, then / I’ll finish it, … and it’ll be beautiful!”

The shreds of Gernes’s opus coalesce in a never-ending medley of sadness, longing, and redemption. Crepuscular strands of light penetrate the northern gloom behind her “closed eyes’ closed eyes.” Atonal and asymmetrical, she balances on a timeline, entwined in the past, listening to Chopin’s frayed nocturnes and Handel’s eternal braids.

 

Michael Greenstein is the author of Third Solitudes (McGill-Queens).

 

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